I’m one who very rarely colors outside of the lines. Even though I can sometimes have a crazy and kooky personality, I stay within the limits of my character, and try to surprise people, but not outrage them. It is people like me who live outside of the USA who feel very glad that we are not in it.
Fear is not a tool to build up power and more fear. Fear shouldn’t inspire people to hate.
This is why when I picked up Belonging, by Umi Sinha, I was so surprised and inspired by what I found within. The book is a little difficult to understand at times, as it’s the diaries and first person narratives of three different generations of the same family: Cecilia, her son Henry several decades later, and finally, Lila, the last of her family. It mixes Heart of Darkness with Jane Eyre/Wide Sargasso Sea to create a brilliant and moving narrative of a family that is constantly looking for a place for them to belong, and never really finding it.
Because the narratives are all strung together as a single story, sometimes it’s difficult to figure out who is speaking when, and about what. Thankfully, Sinha includes a really simple yet handy family tree at the beginning of the book to keep us in check.
Cecilia is the matriarch of the family, who is moving to India to be with her much older fiance, a dark and awkward man named Arthur. Her diaries cover the turbulent end of Britain’s colonial hold on India, including some of its more violent parts. Henry, her son, fills his journals with his quest to find his identity, as his mother has been dead since his birth, and his father is too racked with pain and guilt to be emotionally available for his son. Lila, his daughter, is the opening narrative of the book with shattering and life changing events that will keep you hooked until the very end. Their three narratives are expertly woven together to give a slow unfolding tale about belonging, and finding one’s identity when one is between worlds.
What I particularly liked about this novel that I thought superseded the idea of belonging (even though this is the name of the novel) is how it addressed larger issues of race and racism. In a time when we have a presidential candidate who wants to build a literal wall to keep out war-stricken refugees, it is good to be reminded of how difficult it is to be uprooted from ones home and way of life; to be transplanted somewhere where one had no intention of being. It’s also good to be reminded of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who fought for Britain in WWI. How quickly did their heroism and loyalty fade until now we sniff and turn our noses at anyone who is wearing a turban, burka, or thawb.
We let fear of the unknown define our actions and our perceptions of people we don’t know personally. We let false assumptions shape our actions, and sometimes there are those we can help that we don’t, because we fear being hurt. But everyone has a story that is deeper and more meaningful than what we can see on the surface, so before you dismiss something completely, listen to their story. And maybe, so people don’t do the same to you, write your own.